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March Maple Madness: A Sweet Time of Year

It's a chilly March Monday at the beginning of Massachusetts Maple Month. And even though Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, Mass., is closed, Roger Backman is hard at work tapping trees, bringing sap up to the kitchen, boiling it down and bottling it — a process known as maple sugaring.

The retired engineer is the volunteer in charge of the sanctuary's maple sugaring program. Help is available, but it is mostly a one-man operation. This year, Backman expects to bottle 22 gallons of syrup by the time the season ends in mid-April. Since it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, he will collect and boil quite a few buckets in the next month or so.

Maple sap runs when nighttime temperatures hover in the 20s and daytime temperatures don't dip below the 40s. In New England, this happens between late February and mid-April.

While large commercial operations now use plastic tubing, pipelines and even vacuum pumps, small-scale producers such as Backman still do it the old-fashioned way, with a hand-held drill, metal buckets and spiles, or spigots, hammered into the holes.

In the latter case, sap drips out slowly but steadily (although if the temperature drops too low, sap will stop flowing until it warms up again), filling up about one-third of a bucket, or a half-gallon, in a day. Maple sugaring won't be rushed.

Hundreds of years ago, according to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association (MMPA), maple sugar was more common than syrup because it was easier to store, and it was an important commodity for both native people and colonists. The Pilgrims learned about maple sugaring from Native Americans, who collected sap in containers made from hollowed-out birch bark or clay, then dropped hot stones in to evaporate some of the water. Another method was to let the sap freeze, leaving behind a sugar concentrate.

When the import tax on white cane sugar was removed at the end of the 19th century, cane sugar soon outsold maple sugar. But maple syrup was popular enough that many sugar makers just switched to making syrup. (Even so, they still call the process maple sugaring.)

A tree needs to be a minimum of 12 inches in diameter — which means it is at least 40 years old — before it is ready to be tapped. The grand old tree in front of us on a recent blustery afternoon is more than 200 years old and has two taps in it. Others have a couple dozen visible holes in them, but proper tapping doesn't harm the tree. Some New England trees have been tapped yearly for more than a century.

There are 100 buckets out awaiting maple sap at Drumlin Farm this year. Each day that the sap is running, Backman and a few sanctuary staff members gather the containers and pour the watery contents into holding tanks next to the wood-fired evaporator. Backman runs the evaporator once he has collected at least 50 gallons of sap. The reduced sap goes to the kitchen, where it is filtered and boiled down in large stainless steel pots until it is thick and well, syrupy — a process that takes a day.

Maple syrup comes in a variety of grades: Grade A light amber, Grade A medium amber, Grade A dark amber and Grade B. The A grades go from lighter and milder to darker and more robust, whereas Grade B, often referred to as cooking syrup, is usually considered too strong to be eaten plain. Producers have no control over which kind of syrup they'll get. The same trees can give off different grades from year to year, depending on the weather.

Although maple syrup can be produced anywhere you find maple trees and the right weather conditions, it is mainly a product of New England and eastern Canada. Syrup also can be made from birch, palm trees and even alder, hickory and black walnut. But the sap from these trees needs to be boiled down much more than maple sap to get syrup that is sufficiently sweet.

Almost any grade of maple syrup (except B) goes perfectly with waffles, French toast and pancakes. I like to drizzle it into oatmeal or yogurt. But maple syrup also can be turned into fantastic glazes for meats (especially pork ribs), and it can be used to turn nuts and dried fruits into something extra special.

My kids love maple syrup mostly because it is so sweet, but I love it for its distinctively woodsy flavor, which is why we always have not a bottle, but a jug in the fridge.

Unopened, syrup will last indefinitely, but once opened it should be refrigerated. If any harmless mold forms on the surface, the MMPA says simply bring the syrup to a slight boil, skim the surface and pour into a clean container. In my house, it never lasts long enough for mold to develop.

A Southern friend of ours says with a laugh that he prefers corn syrup and chemical-enriched "pancake syrup" to the real thing. But he and his family just moved to Boston from Atlanta a year ago. We're betting that by the time the sap stops running in April, he will have come around.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: zakuski.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

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Betsy Block